Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2008

A Fraction of the Whole (2008), by Steve Toltz

Update 2.2.2010: an apology to Steve Toltz and my readers.
What follows below is a classic example of a ‘review’ that should never have been written. A Fraction of the Whole is an example of postmodernist literature, but I didn’t know that, didn’t recognise its features and prematurely dismissed it. Perhaps if I had known what I subsequently summarised on Postmodernism for the Uninitiated I might have enjoyed the book; even if I still didn’t like it, I could have ‘judged well’ as Angela Bennie recommends.   I have left my ‘review’ as it stands – with this mea culpa attached – but I urge you to read reviews by critics who were better informed and understood the work better than I did, and to look out for these features:

  • absurdity, playfulness & black humour
  • distrust – of the narrator and of the assumptions of society
  • metafiction – making the artificiality of the writing apparent with deliberate strategies to prevent the usual suspension of disbelief (This was the rock I perished on, not understanding this).
  • maximalism – the sprawling canvas
  • magic realism (the incredible events)

There may be more, but these are what I remember over a year after reading the book.  Please feel free to comment below if there are others.

Reviews to read

I really should have known better….


Is this supposed to be a spoof of the family saga genre? A Fraction of the Whole is the story of a pathetically horrible family trying to escape the notoriety of being related to the famous criminal, Terry Dean. The nephew, Jasper, tells some of the story, and some of it is retold by Martin Dean, Jasper’s father, through journals.

I’ll be honest – I skipped huge chunks of this and scanned the last half instead of reading it. It has been described as picaresque, and that it is: utterly plotless. What’s more, while the cynical, witty tone is amusing at first, it wears thin pretty quickly and 600+ pages of it was too much for me.

Finer minds than mine shortlisted it for the Booker, so perhaps you should read other reviews before dismissing it…


But for me, life’s too short to read this stuff. Bank robbers who write their own guide to crime, die in a prison fire and are then resurrected in Thailand? I can’t even be bothered re-telling what little I remember of it.


  1. […] only ones I’ve read so far are Addition and  A Fraction of the Whole.  I suspect that the latter was included in this list because it was nominated for the Booker.  […]


  2. […] A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz […]


  3. Good for you! Except, I wonder about this “should have known better”. If you didn’t like it, you didn’t like it. Does it make a difference to suddenly know it belongs to a style?

    Must admit though that I liked it a lot … I thought it was funny, and deserved its accolades, even though at times it was a bit of a loose baggy monster. I didn’t talk about post-modernism in my review – perhaps I should have but I often forget to place a book within its “style”.


  4. Well, I think the point about ‘knowing better’ is that even though I’m not setting myself up as a professional reviewer I still think I have a responsibility to have an ‘informed’ opinion. Or do my best at it anyway LOL.


  5. Fair enough. I do agree in general but, on the other hand, you can also only know what you know some times. It’s really hard to be across everything – and if you read other reviews first to “be across” them, then somehow, I think, you can lose your own fresh response can’t you?


  6. Oh yes, and you’re right, you can only know what you know, and the fresh response is what I assume our readers like to read. I don’t think any of them are interested in reading regurgitated opinions from other reviewers. That kind of writing is just reporting what other people think and I’m not interested in doing that at all.

    Like you I avoid reviews immediately before and during my reading because apart from anything else you really can’t trust most of them not to give away the plot. I do browse reviews in the ABR and the weekend papers, but I only scan enough of them to help me decide whether to buy the book or not, and then only if I don’t know the author. Reviews do help to sort out the dross from the diamonds, but now I’m so familiar with the reviewers that I can mostly tell if I’m going to like the book just by who reviews it and don’t need to read past the first paragraph.

    But even if I did read the review properly, by the time I’ve got hold of the book and got round to reading it, I’d have forgotten what the review said anyway – so it wouldn’t help me to be ‘across it’ at all.

    Anyway, what I’m confessing to above is that it’s only a year or so ago that if I didn’t understand a book I’d be inclined to blame the book. At its simplest, that could be like saying that a plot was unrealistic because of a lack of understanding about what magic realism was. Whereas now, because I know more about postmodernism than I did, if something doesn’t make sense to me, I’d be more likely to look at my own list of pomo features( and try to consider whether the writer might be writing in a sophisticated way rather than dismiss him/her as incompetent.

    So I still only know what I know, but I’m a bit smarter now!


  7. […] Aravind Adiga The White Tiger see my review Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture see my review Amitav Ghosh Sea of Poppies see my review Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs see my review Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency see my review Steve Toltz A Fraction of the Whole see my review […]


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